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Phillips Highlights The Minimalist Mind

New exhibits of the works of Robert Ryman and Richard Pousette-Dart at the Phillips Collection demonstrate how two American painters idiosyncratically interpret the minimalist impulse of modern art and achieve profundity through simple devices.

“They’re really two different aspects of painting in the 20th century,” said Dorothy Kosinski, the museum’s director. “I love that symmetry, the linking together.”

Ryman’s “Variations and Improvisations,” which the artist himself helped organize, is focused and unpretentious, much like the paintings exhibited. His small, playful, square works strip art to its fundamental qualities, shunning representational forms to focus on experimentation with new materials and methods.

The lack of recognizable depictions or titles to guide the experience forces viewers to focus on the sheer physicality of each work. The paint textures protrude from the gallery walls but could just as easily be mistaken for the wall’s own paint job.

“It’s about gesture. It’s about materiality,” said Vesela Sretenovic, the gallery’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “There is a lot of exploration, a lot of improvisation, a lot of chance-taking.”

Sretenovic suggested that Ryman may have carried these traits over from his early career as a jazz saxophonist, the aspiration that originally brought him to New York, where he discovered visual art and put down the saxophone for good.

Instead of adorning white canvases with colorful paint, Ryman paints white smears that crest atop a base of color set on canvases of wood, paper, metal, plastic and other unconventional materials.

For instance, “Untitled (Test K),” which Ryman started in 1963 and finished earlier this year, presents on a spare piece of burlap puddles of color in a vertical palette beside a square of intertwined thick white brushstrokes. Bits of color peek from behind the white, evoking teasing images of what could be hidden behind.

Ryman fastened the painting to the wall with staples, one of his favored methods of hanging since he stopped using frames in the 1960s. He sometimes also uses bolts.

A solitary untitled painting hangs on a wall in the middle of the exhibit; it’s Ryman’s favorite work, Sretenovic said. But what sets it apart from the others is hard to tell, which makes one wonder whether Ryman is simply playing a joke on his audience.

Like Ryman’s work, Pousette-Dart’s art also deals with minimalism by stripping most color from the equation. But while Ryman’s works are playful, Pousette-Dart’s are intense and haunting, like carvings on the walls of an insane asylum.

“His work deals so much with the same subject matter, but it’s also very different,” said Eliza Rathbone, chief curator at the Phillips. “It’s not gestural. It’s very worked on … working and reworking the surface until it comes into its own.”

Though Pousette-Dart is best known for his vivid impasto abstract expressionism, this exhibit explores a different side of his art. “Predominantly White Paintings” displays exactly that: works of simple graphite and oil on canvas.

The artist scratched frantic lines of graphite into expansive canvases, producing bulbous teardrop shapes and long rectangles within the white space. Those spaces in sum establish each painting’s theme.

The works are far more representational than Ryman’s. Titles like “White Flower,” “The Serpent” and “Quiet Lovers” lead viewers to realize figures in the works that might otherwise not have been recognizable.

Still, as unsettling as they are, they are equally spellbinding.

“They’re so engaging because there’s so much to look at,” Rathbone said. “Pousette-Dart alluded to each work as being a place in which much dancing occurred.”

And where Ryman chose his methods, Pousette-Dart’s were born of necessity — he created the works between 1949 and 1954 when he was short on money for materials.

The two exhibits run through Sept. 12.

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